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Wanting Magic

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One of the attractions of the Christian faith, at least for me, is the tall tales in the bible. You know what I mean: floating axe heads, parted waters, men unsinged in a fire pit, lightning from a cloudless sky that obliterates not only the sacrificial offering but the very stones on which it was laid. The stories are frankly unbelievable, and yet countless people down through the ages have nevertheless believed them. In fact, such stories exist in every culture, not just in the bible. Humans have always told tales that can’t be true and still insisted that they are.

As a child, I wanted desperately to witness a genuine miracle, something that could not be explained as unaccountably improbable but only as really impossible and yet there it was right in front of me.

I want to see miracles, to see the world change,
I wrestled the angel for more than a name,
For more than a feeling, for more than a cause.
I’m singing ‘Spirit, take me up in arms with You’
And you’re raising the dead in me.

“Twenty Four”, Switchfoot.

Christianity seemed to promise such possibilities. Jesus himself told his disciples that with faith nothing would be impossible to them. They could move mountains! And yet….

What I wanted was power. I wanted the universe to submit to me.

To that end, I made extravagant promises to God. I prayed for faith. I prayed to be filled with God’s Spirit. I sought out ways to compel God to do my bidding. I tried to cajole him, tried to manipulate him, tried to get him on my side. It was only later that I realized that what I was looking for, hoping for, longing for was magic.

Magic confers effortless power through properly applied rituals. The underlying premise of magic is that the forces that move the world are subject to esoteric rules that can be used to manipulate them. Just say the right words in the right order with the right inflection, and you can heal the sick, raise the dead, take up deadly serpents, and drink poison without being harmed. Some more advanced forms might require physical acts such as sprinkling specially prepared water or wine, consuming certain foods, or imbibing certain drinks. Did not even Jesus make an eye salve from dust and saliva to heal a blind man? If I could have learned exactly what to say and how to say it, the power of God would be at my disposal to do my will.

Imagine the audacity of thinking you could use God’s power for any purpose except God’s will. I had that audacity.

Nevertheless, the world still reverberates with stories of miracles. Humans still believe in impossible things, and it is one of our great strengths. Faith drives us to try things that have never been tried, to challenge accepted wisdom and even undisputed facts. That drive and those challenges continue to yield extraordinary benefits for all mankind, but they do not come by magic. They come through perseverance, hard work, paradigm shifts in our understanding, and repeated failures from which we learn what doesn’t work. Only one new idea in a million may succeed, but thanks to our amazing capacity to disseminate knowledge, one idea can make the world better for everyone.

One such idea is the good news at the heart of Christianity, that despite the horrors and terrors present in the world, despite the suffering and loss we all endure in life, God loves us all as a good father loves his children with an unshakable love. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at your elbow.” All you have to do to enter it is turn toward it; it’s right there.

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bible jesus prayer

Pretenders

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Every society has them, people who learned early that your image is more important than your real character. They care about what people think, and not just any people, but people they don’t even like, people they despise, people to whom they believe themselves superior. So they play a part, pretending to be a good person. They hold a press conference when they donate to charity so everyone knows how generous they are and no one questions how they got their wealth in the first place—by stealing wages from their employees, selling shoddy products to their customers, or ravaging the earth.

“Don’t be like them,” Jesus tells his disciples. “When you give, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Do it in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

Some pretenders have a religious bent. They want people to think they are holier, better, more pious. So they pray out loud on cable television, invoking the name of God to line their own pockets and fund their own lavish lifestyle, while the people they prey on can barely make ends meet. When they fast, as they sometimes do to show how truly superior they are, they parade their misery in front of the cameras, so everyone knows how self-sacrificial they are being, how Christian, how ascetic. They’ve already got what they want, the esteem and envy of the masses.

“Don’t be like them,” Jesus says. “Pray in an inner room away from the limelight. Don’t let anyone guess that you’re fasting. Comb your hair, put on your makeup, and use breath freshener, so no one knows you’re not eating. Then your Father, who sees what you are doing in secret, will reward you.”

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bible jesus law

Jesus and the Law

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Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Matthew 5:17-18

The history of Israel is a history of struggle against God and his law. No matter where you dip into the Old Testament, you find the same things happening again and again: cycles of sin, repentance, deliverance, complacency, and sin again. From the Aachen’s sin at the conquest of Jericho, to the dull refrain in Judges that the people did what was right in their own eyes. From Eli’s sons taking bribes and perverting justice, to Solomon’s burden of taxation. From the splitting of the kingdom, to the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom. From the threats posed by Egypt to the Babylonian captivity. From the ethnic cleansing under Ezra to the revolt of the Maccabees. Even after the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews finally accepted the monotheism of their religion, they still were not able to fully embody the Law Moses had given.

For the Law was intended as a revelation of God’s unchanging nature: his unfailing compassion, kindness, and love. But by Jesus’ day it had become a labyrinth of laws, commentaries, and further clarifications, obfuscating God’s nature and burdening his people beyond endurance. Yet Jesus makes it clear that he has no intention of abolishing the Law or the Prophets. Rather, he has come to fulfill them.

It is easy to understand what it means to fulfill prophecy—though very hard to actually do it. How do you choose your birthplace, for example? But it may be hard to understand what it means to fulfill the Law. One possibility is to simply keep the Law, something Jesus claimed to have done. He challenged his critics to produce one shred of evidence that he was guilty of breaking any Law. Yet if keeping the Law were all he did, his accomplishment would have meaning only for himself alone. But he went further, and made it possible for his followers to have a change of heart so that they would observe the Law not by outward rituals and forms but by representing to the world the real character of God—his loving kindness and compassion. He fulfilled the Law by internalizing it in his followers.

Thus he goes on to redefine murder as hatred and adultery as lust. He urges his followers not to take oaths to certify the truth of what they say, to be generous even to those who try to harm them, and to show care even for enemies. In short, he wants them to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect. This is the fulfillment of the Law—an assembly of believers who represent God’s perfect love to a skeptical, watching, hurting world.

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